Late surge from Connacht falls short as Ulster prevail

Jack Carty missed an injury-time conversion to snatch an unlikely draw for Connacht as Ulster ended their three-game losing streak at the Sportsground.

Trailing by 13 points with two minutes remaining, Connacht produced a stunning late rally with tries from replacements Jarrad Butler and Adam Byrne, the latter scoring in the fifth minute of added time.

However, Carty’s conversion from out wide swung the wrong side of the posts as their three-match winning run was halted.

Ulster looked home and hosed when hooker Tom Stewart crossed twice in nine minutes after the restart to put Ulster 19-3 up, having led by two points at the end of an error-strewn first half thanks to Rob Lyttle’s try.

Caolin Blade responded for Connacht on 60 minutes, only for a John Cooney penalty to make it 22-8, but Greg Jones’ sin-binning sparked a thrilling finish, with the Westerners coming up narrowly short. Their poor record in interprovincial derbies continues – this was their eighth defeat in nine matches against their neighbours.

Connacht didn’t look like taking anything from this game for 70-plus minutes. While they edged the scrum battle, their attack faltered, with a dismal kicking game looking to have put paid to any hopes of extending that run.

Ulster captain Iain Henderson claiming a lineout in their 22-20 win over Connacht

Despite the big finish this game was far from a Christmas cracker, with Ulster also fluffing their lines in attack, particularly during the first half. Their slender lead would have been a source of frustration at half-time but they atoned for that in the second half thanks to Stewart’s double, both of which were converted by Cooney, who also tagged on a late penalty.

Connacht’s only defeats in their last eight matches had come against Leinster and Munster, and there was little to suggest they would extend that run during a low-quality first half.

The hosts saw plenty of ball inside their own half but lost their way once they crossed the halfway line, their inaccuracies in attack surfacing once again.

They needed two big turnovers from Conor Oliver to keep Ulster at bay, the second coming after lovely hands from Iain Henderson put Tom Stewart charging through a gap.

After a dour first quarter, Ethan McIlroy looked set to open the scoring when he intercepted Carty’s pass and tore downfield, but the Connacht captain atoned for his error by scrambling back and making a vital tackle on the Ulster wing.

Having squandered a number of scoring chances, Ulster finally finished one on 28 minutes. A string of -excellent passes saw Stewart find McIlroy out the back and he in turn offloaded to Luke Marshall. Although Tiernan O’Halloran managed to break the chain the ball broke kindly for Lyttle, who kicked ahead and touched down while a flat-footed Connacht defense watched on.

Back-to-back penalties allowed Carty to reply from the tee but Connacht put themselves back under pressure by making a hash of the restart. Again their breakdown work got them out of jail, a Shane Delahunt jackal on opposite number Stewart ensuring it remained 5-3 at the break.

Jack Carty of Connacht reacts after kicking that late conversion attempt wide

A frustrating end to the first half for Ulster, but they atoned for that after the restart as Stewart crossed twice in nine minutes.

The Connacht defense began to cough up penalties and were punished in 44 minutes when Stewart found Henderson at the lineout and then positioned himself at the base of an advancing maul to score.

Some tryline heroics from Bundee Aki prevented Ulster a quick-fire second but they were not to be denied and when another penalty was booted into touch, the Ulster maul allowed Stewart to score his seventh try of the season. Cooney converted both tries to make it 19-3.

Connacht need a quick response and they got it through scrum-half Blade, who sniped off a maul and withstood four tacklers to touch down for an unconverted try.

However, poor kicking continued to prove their undoing. Carty failed to find touch from a scrum penalty and then hacked another out on the full to gift territory and possession to Ulster, which yielded another penalty that Cooney dispatched.

That looked to be game over, but it was anything but. With Ulster down to 14, Cian Prendergast had a late try chalked off by the TMO, but replacement Butler did cross a minute later to earn Connacht a losing bonus point.

With the clock red, Connacht worked the ball upfield, drawing penalties along the way. It resulted in Byrne forcing his way over out wide, but Carty’s missed conversion dampened any Christmas cheer among the home support.

Connecht: Tiernan O’Halloran; John Porch, Tom Farrell, Bundee Aki, Mack Hansen; Jack Carty (capt), Caolin Blade; Denis Buckley, Shane Delahunt, Finlay Bealham; Josh Murphy, Niall Murray; Oisín Dowling, Conor Oliver, Cian Prendergast.

Replacements: Dave Heffernan for Delahunt (48), Jarrad Butler for Murphy (48), Shamus Hurley-Langton for Oliver (51), Peter Dooley for Buckley (52), Adam Byrne for O’Halloran (54), David Hawkshaw for Aki (60 ), Kieran Marmion for Balde (68), Dominic Robertson-McCoy for Bealham (68).

Ulster: Mike Lowry; Ethan McIlroy, Luke Marshall, Stuart McCloskey, Rob Lyttle; Nathan Doak, John Cooney; Rory Sutherland, Tom Stewart, Marty Moore; Alan O’Connor, Iain Henderson (capt), David McCann, Marcus Rea, Nick Timoney.

Replacements: Stewart Moore for Lowry (ht), Gareth Milasinovich for Moore (51), Sam Carter for O’Connor (52), Greg Jones for McCann (56), Eric O’Sullivan for Sutherland (65), Jake Flannery for Marshall (80 ).

Referees: Frank Murphy (IRFU).

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